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Meng Cun quickly stopped in his tracks, staring at him with uncertainty. “You…?!”
Tang Fan still sat there unmoving, the clothes covering his body not even sliding down. Though a few large steps of distance still existed between the two, if Meng Cun wanted to kill him, it would be a simple act.
Tang Fan laughed. “Are you confused? I actually have a lot of questions, too. Before you act, shouldn’t we clear them up?”
Meng Cun laughed coldly. “If you want to draw things out, you’ve got the wrong idea. As long as they go to rescue Wang Zhi, they’ll be trapped together, unable to help! Don’t count on them coming back!”
Tang Fan shook his head, voice warm. “I wasn’t planning on holding you up, and I know that even if I call out, the rain will block out my voice, not getting through at all.”
Aside from Tang Fan, no one in the cave was in good condition. Even he was no more than a weak scholar that didn’t have the strength to wrangle a chicken, posing no sort of threat to Meng Cun.
After measuring the situation, Meng Cun slightly lowered the dagger he held. “Answer my question, first.”
Tang Fan nodded, his smile like a cleansing spring breeze. “Go on.”
“Why did you just fake sleep?”
“Because I thought you were worthy of suspicion.”
Meng Cun raised his brows. “I didn’t think I gave anything away.”
His tone was cocky, entirely different from that ingratiating voice he once had towards Sui Zhou and Tang Fan, as if he had been switched out for a different person. Tang Fan was more willing to believe that these were Meng Cun’s true colors, where he was able to straighten his back. No one ever willingly wanted to lower themselves.
Tang Fan laughed. “That’s only your opinion. Those in the situation are unaware, while bystanders are well aware — you’ve always been suspicious.”
“When we entered Datong, you came to greet us. There was nothing amiss with that, at first, but then you took it upon yourself to toady to us, even using the encounter with Miss Du to purposefully divert our attention to Zhongjing Hall, thus causing us to doubt it and her from the beginning.”
“You can’t claim that that point alone made me suspicious. You later discovered that Ding Rong was an informant, too.”
“Correct. At the time, we believed that all of the informants had been caught, until you showed up in this group. Wang Zhi said that you were one of the surviving soldiers from the third group, as well as the one with the highest post.”
“That’s why you were already suspecting me then?”
“I had thought it was simply too much of a coincidence. Three groups of soldiers had either died or gone missing, while you alone brought six back. The soldier that came with us said that it had been thanks to your timely retreat that they had been able to survive.
“Immediately after that came Shen Gui’s death. He believed that he had been cursed to death from far away by Li Zilong because he disclosed the White Lotus Society’s secret. In reality, he forgot that the water he drank that day had been passed to him by you. You had ample opportunity and time to put poison in it. If I’m not guessing wrongly, you wanted to use his death to shake morale, make everyone think that Li Zilong was incredibly powerful and undefeatable, and attack us mentally.”
Meng Cun nodded. “You’re worthy of being called a god at cracking cases, Tang Runqing, with your penetrating analysis. So you doubted me from the beginning.”
Tang Fan laughed. “I’m unworthy of your praise, Corporal Meng. You look too highly upon me. I was not only doubting you, but Miss Du, because in this group of people, she was more suspicious than you were. Zhongjing Hall can come and go from Datong without hindrance, a superb hub for information in and of itself, and she is proficient in the medical field, which meant that she could have caused Shen Gui’s acute death. More importantly, before the sand cyclone appeared tonight, she happened to pop up in Sui Zhou and I’s tent, and also happened to follow me all the way here. She was injured, but her life isn’t in danger. Look at everyone around; is there anyone else as lucky as her?”
He was structured in speech, and had quite some draw, like a storyteller. Meng Cun came to be quite interested in listening. “Why were you still on-guard against me, then? When I came in with Chuyun-zi just now, we were both injured.”
Tang Fan laughed in mockery. “Because you said one thing that completely exposed you.”
“What thing?” Meng Cun asked, doubtful.
“You said you met up with Wang Zhi,” Tang Fan said, curbing his grin, “and he helped take the pressure off of you, letting you come over to report ahead of time.”
“Right, but what’s the problem with that?”
Unable to hold back, Tang Fan burst into laughter. “Because the Wang Zhi I know isn’t like that at all! Rather than give you two backup, he’s much more likely to just have dumped you and come here himself! You really think too well of him!”
Hearing this, Meng Cun’s face flashed green and white. It wasn’t clear whether he was angry or not.
Still, his mental endurance had always been high, so after a moment’s adaptation, he began to laugh as well, approaching Tang Fan once more. “So what if you’ve found me out, though? It’s too late now. Don’t you worry; once I kill you, I’ll deal with everyone else here. You’ll all be able to talk about old times in the underworld so you won’t be lonely!”
Saying so, he leapt straight up, dagger glinting with cold light, and pounced at Tang Fan.
However, Tang Fan looked overly calm. His little smile didn’t even shrink.
This made the suspicious-by-nature Meng Cun even more heavily suspicious. Someone that was on the verge of death shouldn’t be reacting like that at all!
He quickly went on the alert. In the span of a spark, Meng Cun came to a decision — his figure turned around in midair, his target no longer being Tang Fan, but Du Gui’r, who was sleeping not too far from him!
His skills were excellent and wisdom the cream of the crop, else he would not have been able to stay hidden all this time.
It had to be said that his bet was the correct one; the instant he switched goals to Du Gui’r, he clearly saw surprise and unpreparedness come to Tang Fan’s face.
Meng Cun gave a smug smile. Accompanying that smirk was him crooking his fingers into a claw, then firmly grabbing Du Gui’r by the throat. He hauled her up, roughly pulling her into his arms to use her as a shield, then swiftly changed direction to retreat, tightly sticking himself to the stone wall.
Sure enough, he saw two people appear at the entrance of the cave — Sui Zhou and Wei Shan.
They had never left.
Tang Fan didn’t have to explain, as Meng Cun already understood. When he had said that Wang Zhi let him come over to report, the others had already begun to doubt him, and even though the two had never expressed as much verbally, they had exchanged ideas via their expressions. Hence was why Sui Zhou had brought Wei Shan to pretend to go rescuing, when in reality, they had always been lurking right outside the cave, waiting for Meng Cun to reveal himself.
And he had.
He didn’t believe himself to be truly without help, though.
“I’m guessing that you all don’t want this woman to die,” he started slowly. “If you don’t, then don’t test my patience.”
Sui Zhou had walked in right when Meng Cun made to abruptly attack Tang Fan, and had nearly thrown his sabre, holding certainty that he would hit Meng Cun before the other could injure Tang Fan. Against expectations, Meng Cun had become vigilant partway through, discovering the oddity, then going for Du Gui’r, which Sui Zhou hadn’t been able to counter.
Meng Cun’s act was absolutely beyond anyone’s anticipation. After all, amongst everyone here, Tang Fan alone was the one he would possibly rush towards, as well as the most valuable. Now that he had Du Gui’r, they were afraid of shooting the rat so as not to hit the vase, forced to watch as he dragged her into a corner.
She subconsciously cried out in alarm from being suddenly caught, but the lady quickly came to comprehend her circumstances. She was still scared and confused, her body taut and ramrod-straight, yet she clenched her jaw and didn’t make a peep.
Tang Fan stood up, walking over with Sui Zhou. “Release her, and you can leave,” he said darkly. “We won’t kill you.”
Meng Cun sneered. “And I’d believe that?”
“Isn’t it your array that’s set up outside? The second you go out, you’ll be a dragon swimming in the wide open sea.”
And yet, Meng Cun did not head in the direction of the cave’s entrance, but slowly drew deeper into the cave, holding his dagger across Du Gui’r’s neck as he brought her along. The more he walked, getting farther away from the fire’s range of illumination, the more the two’s figures became obscured in the darkness.
“Wait!” Tang Fan quickly stopped. “What do you actually want? If it’s possible for us to, we’ll fulfill it. Miss Du is innocent, why are you using her?”
Meng Cun laughed eerily. “I want your life. Are you giving it?”
Meng Cun had no plans to let him answer, however. The second he spoke, he dashed straight into the cave with Du Gui’r, then vanished.
Tang Fan looked at Sui Zhou, an inquiring expression therein.
“Are we rescuing her, or no?” Sui Zhou asked back.
“Yes!” Tang Fan answered, not needing to think.
Truthfully, Du Gui’r was just a commoner woman. If they didn’t rescue her, they would not suffer any reproach. She had taken it upon herself to go out there with them, too, which had nothing to do with them. After they returned, apart from Doctor Du and patients that had received her care before, few would likely be heartbroken over this ordinary girl.
However, the reason she had come out with them was because she was more familiarized with the terrain, and also because she wanted to do the right thing, similarly wishing to be able to solve the puzzle of the Weining Sealet, plus aid the Ming army in capturing success. If they didn’t rescue her, what would be the difference between them and Li Man’s, Meng Cun’s ilk?
In one’s time on Earth, there were things to be done, and things to not be done. What anyone else did didn’t matter — one’s own conscience needed to not let the world down.
Such was the biggest difference between the good and the bad.
Receiving his confirmation, Sui Zhou merely nodded, not expressing any dissent. “Wei Shan, stay here to look after Lu Yan and Chuyun-zi.”
Lu Yan and Chuyun-zi were injured the worst in this group. The commotion that had just been made had not been minor, yet even that hadn’t roused them; they had both evidently sunken into a half-comatose state, and could not be left unattended.
After explaining so to Wei Shan, Tang Fan and Sui Zhou pursued inside the cave.
Meng Cun had Du Gui’r with him, so he was bound to not be running too quickly. Du Gui’r herself was also presumably dragging out the time, staggering and stumbling the whole way, nearly making Meng Cun trip and fall.
How could Meng Cun not tell what her plan was? He immediately hiked her up by the lapels and swung her two slaps. “Bitch! Don’t even think about getting any ideas, or I’ll just kill you so that I can run better!”
Beaten until blood flowed from the corners of her mouth, she didn’t make a sound.
On the other end, Tang Fan and Sui Zhou were running quickly, and soon caught sight of the other two. Meng Cun was seen grabbing her while holding a flamestick in his other hand; their shadows jumped up and down in the darkness along with the light, suddenly stopping not far away.
Tang Fan heard the distant slapping sounds. Seeing that Meng Cun was a little far off, his heart was anxious, fearing that they couldn’t catch up to him. He went a little faster, but at that moment, a hand reached out from beside him, solidly preventing him from taking the step he was about to.
He was a bit confused. “Guangchuan?”
“Underfoot,” the other said concisely.
Tang Fan lowered his head. By the light of his flamestick, he broke into a cold sweat out of fright.
A mere few steps ahead of him, the path suddenly cut off, swapped out for a black abyss. The flamestick’s faint spark gave no way for one to clearly see how deep it was. Had he taken just a few paces ahead of him, he would likely have vanished from this world.
This was not at all because he hadn’t been looking at where he was going, but rather that when one held a flamestick, their eyes would automatically only look at what it could shine upon. Furthermore, if eyes remained in the light for long, the surrounding darkness would get darker, making blind spots.
In his worry, he had temporarily forgotten as much. Thinking back to how Meng Cun’s flame had bounced a few times, there was likely a path to take here, where certain key areas would have to be hopped to before this bottomless moat could be passed. But there were no lanterns, everything completely black with only flamesticks to be used — how would they be able to see the path?
By the time the flamesticks could shine on anything, they would likely already be falling.
As if sensing their thoughts, Meng Cun was in no hurry to leave on the other side, laughing loudly. “Why don’t you give chase, gentlemen? Could the trifling Bridge of Life and Death be a challenge for you heavensent geniuses?”
So, this area had a name. ‘The Bridge of Life and Death’ was quite fitting.
Tang Fan still did not neglect to persuade him. “Meng Cun, you holding Miss Du won’t get you anything. It would be better to let her go, and then we’ll sit down to have a proper discussion. You joining the White Lotus Society was for nothing other than fame and fortune, but how could that compare to a future path of using actual weapons to fight? Besides, can the Society grant you a high post and generous rewards?”
Meng Cun laughed. “High post? Generous rewards? I’ve been in the border cities for a full decade; a decade ago, I was a seventh-rank Corporal, and now, I’m still a seventh-rank Corporal! Do you think I have no military merits? Every time, the merits I risked my life to make either get snatched by someone else or overlooked by my superiors! I reject this! Why would you people get to decide my future?! I’m going to decide on it myself!”
“If you are willing to release Miss Du and break off from the Society, no matter what you’ve done before, we will let bygones be bygones,” Tang Fan said warmly. “After I return, how about I go recommend you to Commandant Wang to ensure your promotion?”
“Sir Tang, are you trying to coax a three-year-old?” the other leisurely asked. “I’m afraid that if I surrender, my head will be falling to the ground after I return. You aside, that Envoy Sui beside you is surely the first to want to kill me!”
With that, he laughed coldly. “Since things are at this point, I might as well let you all know. After dawn, Dayan Khan will lead the Tartar’s elites in attacking Datong! Now that Commandant Wang isn’t in the city, Supervisor Wang will find it hard to defend by himself — I want to see how you all can protect the city! If Datong falls, the first to lose their heads will be you! Hahahaha!”
When he came out, he’d had no idea that Wang Yue had never left Datong, which had been top-secret military intel. Even though Wang Yue was in the city, this information was still startling enough.
Tang Fan’s heart jumped. Staring at that bit of light he faced in the dark, he asked, “Is that the truth?”
“Why would I lie?” Meng Cun asked smugly. “You can’t rush back now, and even if you could, it would be too late. Even if you don’t die here, you’ll have to relinquish your posts and titles once you get back! Why not fall to our Society, then? Though… Priest Li’s apprentice-slash-sworn son died because of you, so you’ll probably not have an easy time getting in, haha!”
For a long time, because the Great Ming armies and people had set settlements while the Tartars had inherited the habits of their nomadic ancestors, having no permanent location, the war between the two sides was destined to be done in the style of the Tartars having initiative, and the Ming army being passive. This was not something to be changed.
The sole difference was that if the Ming army was powerful enough, when the Tartars came knocking, the Ming commander could not only repel the Tartars, but send people to chase the defeated troops and deal the opponents a heavy blow. If lucky, they might be able to catch a Tartar commander, or find their palace and destroy it.
The cause for Wang Yue and Wang Zhi’s previous successive victories had been that under their command, the Ming army had been able to get to the retreating enemy effectively, following up their victories with pursuits to heavily strike the Tartars.
Now, the White Lotus Society had deployed the Underworld Soldiers Passing By array at the Weining Sealet. As soon as a sandstorm came, the array would activate, so the Tartars specially picked out days like today when a sandstorm came to go in and raid, making it so that the Ming army could only defend, not chase. If they did give chase, they would certainly be snared by the array, and the tartars would take the chance to ambush them.
As time passed, morale would be influenced, to the point that defense might not even hold up.
Like today, for example; since there was a sandstorm, a scene of Underworld Soldiers Passing By appeared. Even though ghost soldiers could not harm people, they could trouble the psyches of Ming soldiers, and the Tartars could also mix in with it to launch ambushes. Even during the daytime, if the sandstorm could not stop, the array would persist. In addition to that, the Tartars believed that Wang Yue was not in the city, making the selection of this time period to attack more than appropriate.
Wang Yue was in command right now, but because the Ming army would be unprepared, this situation might not be much better.
Naturally, Tang Fan was worried about the army, but what he had to worry more about was their own situation at this moment.
He was quite intelligent, his intelligence allowing him and his comrades to get through difficult situations time and time again, but he couldn’t do everything. Like right now, for example; before he could think up a way to make Meng Cun stay, he heard Sui Zhou pulling his sabre from its sheath beside him!
He didn’t get the ‘at’ out, as he saw Sui Zhou brandish his sabre to block and slash, a clanging sound resonating nonstop in his ears. A gleam of chilling light was in the murk. Sui Zhou leapt from his side, beginning to fight with someone else at once.
Only now did Tang Fan learn that while they had been concerned about running, all of their attention placed upon Meng Cun, they hadn’t noticed the hidden sentries lying in ambush on either side.
Since the others had attacked them, they were clearly on Meng Cun’s team. Several figures dashed and weaved in front of Tang Fan, wisps of wind from blades blowing past his face. He had to stand there, rigid, not daring to move in the least.
Were he to take a step forward, he would possibly get dragged into the fight, and were he to take a step back, he would face the danger of falling into the abyss. At this moment in time, he absolutely refused to distract Sui Zhou, or cause him extra headache.
Even still, he had to occasionally look in Meng Cun’s direction, fearing that he would take Du Gui’r away. Luckily, the other appeared to be rather self-assured, continuing to stand and watch.
He had the means to be self-assured, too. There was that deep ravine separating the two sides that Tang Fan and Sui Zhou wouldn’t be able to find a way past for a while, and even if they did find one, they were a bit too busy at the moment.
Right then, an angry shout suddenly came from the other cliff. “What did you do, you little bitch?!”
Quickly looking towards the sound, Tang Fan discovered that the flamestick Meng Cun once held had been tossed to the ground, the man himself collapsing along with it, still struggling to grab Du Gui’r.
Meanwhile, Du Gui’r, who had fallen, tried hard to get up, carefully avoiding Meng Cun’s wildly-swinging dagger, then aimed a kick at his groin.
As an infirm woman that was also nervous, tense, and scared, her strength was quite limited and accuracy not that great, yet Meng Cun still let out a shriek.
Since the distance was a bit far and the flamestick’s illumination was not enough, it was difficult for Tang Fan to clearly see what had happened, but he knew that it had come about due to something precipitous happening between Meng Cun and Du Gui’r.
“Miss Du, that man is an officer of the Great Ming, yet he’s thrown his lot in with the Tartars and sold himself to the White Lotus Society!” he shouted resolutely at her. “His threat is great — he cannot be allowed to keep his life! You must kill him now, because if you don’t, when he recovers, you will be the first he kills!”
Hearing his words, Du Gui’r panted hard, then did all she could to use her other, non-injured arm to pick Meng Cun’s dagger up off the ground, slowly prop herself up, then crawl over to him.
She had never killed anyone before, but she knew that Tang Fan had spoken the truth. If the man before her did not die, the one that died would be her.
She didn’t want to die — she wanted to go back home and see her parents, wanted to keep being a doctor! There were so many things she needed to do!
Thinking of that, she grit her teeth, shut her eyes, raised the dagger up high, and viciously stuck it into Meng Cun’s chest!
Fresh blood splashed onto her face. Meng Cun’s yelling and swearing abruptly ceased.
She couldn’t help but sob. “I-I killed him… Brother Tang, I killed him…”
Sui Zhou’s battle was also reaching its end. The other side had four people versus one, yet they still weren’t his match, his combat prowess far exceeding their expectations. Two out of the four had been killed by him so far, and the remaining two were at the end of their tethers.
After the information of Du Gui’r’s kill on Meng Cun came over, Tang Fan noticed Sui Zhou’s movements get a lot quicker, his sabre’s edge flashing with continuous light. A muffled noise sounded out, signifying that he had dealt with another enemy.
Sui Zhou quickly slaughtered the remaining person beneath his sabre, then wiped the edge clean of blood using the clothes on one of the corpses.
This set of actions was performed smoothly and efficiently, practically able to be called a murder that had changed into a trick worthy of marvel. Unfortunately, at this moment, no one was quite in the mood to appreciate it. Seeing his sabre enter its sheath, Tang Fan hurriedly expressed his concern. “Are you injured?”
“My arm got slashed. It’s no big deal.”
Tang Fan reached out to feel. Sure enough, the other’s right arm had a thin wound on it. Sui Zhou hadn’t lied — it really wasn’t a deep cut, the blood it oozed minor — but Tang Fan still took out goldsore ointment to sprinkle on and help staunch the bleeding.
“Miss Du is still over there. What do we do?” Tang Fan looked at the deep and dark chasm before them, out of ideas. It was a definite impossibility that Du Gui’r could make it over herself, so she could only wait for their rescue.
Logically speaking, Meng Cun going over there meant that there had to be a way out on the other side, but Du Gui’r was a lone, frail woman. If she ran out too rashly, who knew whether there were Society followers lying in wait ahead, to say nothing of no one knowing where the opposite path even led.
While Tang Fan was worrying, Sui Zhou said, “I’ll try it out.”
Tang Fan was startled. “How?”
“When he just passed, I took note of where his flamestick went up and down, and vaguely remember the positions.”
“Think of another way!” Tang Fan ordered. He wanted to rescue Du Gui’r, but he couldn’t risk Sui Zhou’s life for that.
Lives were valuable, but there was no doubt in his mind as to which party was more important to him.
“If I do fall, no one will force you to answer that question,” Sui Zhou said out of nowhere.
Tang Fan was befuddled. “What question?”
“My heart is joyed by a gent; does the gent’s heart feel the same?”
That was even more straightforward than what he had said in the tent last night. As it was, Envoy Sui had long realized Mister Tang’s nature, so he simply used the current circumstances to make a clear statement, firmly preventing him from fleeing.
Tang Fan was struck completely stupid by that question. A long while later, he grit his teeth. “There’s an absolute zero chance that you’ll fall, because I’m not letting you get past me!”
He couldn’t see Sui Zhou’s expression in the dark, but somehow, he could feel the disappointment emanating off of him.
Curiously, Tang Fan couldn’t resist reaching out and grabbing the man’s sleeve.
And, naturally, Mister Tang couldn’t make out the flash of a smile beneath the other man’s eyes.
A long time seemed to pass. As Tang Fan never said anything, Sui Zhou gently drew his sleeve out his hand. Before he could stop him, his figured bowed slightly, then bound up high as he leapt into the blackness, like a hawk soaring off into the night.
Tang Fan’s heart instantly suspended in air. He could only stare nervously at the bounding silhouette before him. It was no more time than the blink of an eye, but for him, it seemed like a million years had passed.
Sui Zhou didn’t slip and fall, nor encounter danger, his figure landing stably on the other cliff side.
All at once, Tang Fan felt like he was about to bodily collapse, even more tired than he would be facing a hundred Meng Cuns.
His heart was tired, and had a blockage in it.
Despite having an extra person, this wasn’t a difficult task for Sui Zhou. Very soon, he carried Du Gui’r back over with him.
Disregarding the weakness of his knees, Tang Fan stepped up to grab his arm, seeming to want to check that he was completely safe. His strength was so high, it was abnormal, his fingernails nearly piercing the other’s clothes and digging into his skin.
It hurt a bit, but Sui Zhou didn’t stop him, instead raising his hand to brush against Tang Fan’s earlobe.
For but a brief moment, a warm sensation flitted across skin, heating up half of his face.
“Are you alright?”
Hearing Sui Zhou question Du Gui’r, Tang Fan snapped out of it. “How did you get one over Meng Cun?”
“When I was held by him, I once pretended to trip, when I was actually using the opportunity of him being unprepared to open a bottle of numbing agent,” she answered, embarrassed. “As long as it’s smelled or touched, the whole body will go numb after not too long, though it only lasts for a minute. It’s my own recipe.”
“Nice going!” Tang Fan praised her for her tenacity and brilliance. Her adaptability had not only saved herself, but had also reduced the risk of even bigger losses for Tang Fan and Sui Zhou. Had she been brought out the other side by Meng Cun, the current situation would be difficult to speak of.
After rescuing her, the three delayed no more, turning back onto their original path as they spoke.
However, by the time they returned to where they had been, they discovered that of the three people that had remained in the cave, Lu Yan and Wei Shan were both collapsed onto the ground, while Chuyun-zi, who was supposed to be injured and unconscious, was missing.
The author’s mini-theatre:
Meng Cun: If the God of Time were willing to grant me one more chance, I definitely wouldn’t say that.
Tang Fan: Say what?
Meng Cun: That Eunuch Wang is altruistic.
Wang Zhi: …